February 21, 2011

Space Weather Could Disrupt Satellites, Electronics

Experts are warning of solar storms that could thrust our planet into chaos by disrupting computer activity and telecommunication systems on an international scale.

Speaking at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Washington DC over the weekend, UK Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington said that the "issue of space weather has got to be taken seriously."

"We've had a relatively quiet [period] in space weather and we can expect that quiet period to end," Beddington added in his comments, according to Guardian reporter Alok Jha. "Over the same time, over that period, the potential vulnerability of our systems has increased dramatically. Whether it's the smart grid in our electricity systems or the ubiquitous use of GPS in just about everything these days."

In a Sunday article, Kerry Sheridan of AFP said that our modern society has become "increasingly vulnerable" to the effects of these space storms due to our dependence on satellites for things like out telecom networks, our computers, and even our transportation navigation systems. Sheridan noted that a "potent" storm could result in stock market crashes, lengthy blackouts, and other such disruptions.

The threat will escalate over the next decade or so, Sheridan added, because the solar cycle's activity will become more intense through 2022.

"This is not a matter of if, it is simply a matter of when and how big," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco said, according to AFP.

"The last time we had a maximum in the solar cycle, about 10 years ago, the world was a very different place," Lubchenco added. "Cell phones are now ubiquitous; they were certainly around (before) but we didn't rely on them for so many different things"¦ Many things that we take for granted today are so much more prone to the process of space weather than was the case in the last solar maximum."

According to Sheridan, European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC) Director Stephan Lechner told those on hand not to panic, noting that "overreaction" would only "make the situation worse." That said, Sheridan claimed that experts said that "currently, little that can be done to predict such a storm, much less shield the world's electrical grid by doing anything other shutting off power to some of the vulnerable areas until the danger passes."

In a separate statement released late last week, University of Colorado Boulder Professor Daniel Baker, chair of a committee that authored a 2008 report on space weather and its potential impact on society and the economy, said that last week's solar flare resulted in the largest space storm in at least four years, and added that "as a society, we can't afford to let our guard down."

"Human dependence on technology makes society more susceptible to the effects of space weather," Baker added. "But scientists and engineers have made great strides in recent decades regarding this phenomenon"¦ We understand much more about what is happening and can build more robust systems to withstand the effects. It will be interesting to see how well our technological systems will withstand the rigors of space weather as the sun gets back to higher activity levels."


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